The Human Measure

April 29, 2011 § 5 Comments

Paul Devens on essentials, control, dead kittens and sound mapping the city of Kortrijk.


City Chase is the title of a new Resonance installation produced for the upcoming Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk, Belgium (from May 5th until May 22nd) by Dutch sound artist Paul Devens. I visited Paul in his little white home, a bit outside the center of Maastricht, at the border of the Caberg neighborhood. It was a very sunny day in March. The weather had decided to settle for spring. Paul had just returned to base, after several weeks of travel that took him to the east: to the Estonian city of Tallinn (one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture); and to the west: to Brooklyn, New York. In Tallinn he performed at the radio art festival Radiaator. In Brooklyn, Michael J. Schumacher’s Diapason Gallery showed his Probe, a site specific work developed especially for the exposition space of Diapason. It was on show there in March.

Paul and I have quite a few things common. Both of us were born and raised in the Dutch city of Maastricht. And when we were young, we both were fascinated by the many small wonders of technology that surrounded us. Paul told me how as a kid he used to take radio’s apart, put them back together again, while attempting to find out what would happen if on the way one changes something here or there. I used to be a pretty fanatic young de-constructor as well, with a liking, also for radios and other things electric, but very specifically for mechanical clocks. Contrary to Paul, though, I have little remembrance of ever having succeeded in even approximately putting back together again the collections of loose parts that were the result of my pre-teen deconstructive efforts.
So that then is a difference.
It might explain the fact that eventually I left Maastricth, while Paul stayed.
Which is another difference.
Paul Devens has been living, studying, researching and working in Maastricht until this very day.

“When I entered art school,“ he said, “this technical bricolage gradually became less haphazard. It took on a more focused form. It was also in art school that I became interested in the peculiarities and possibilities of ‘sound’. I embarked upon the artistic research that I pursue until this very day, in which research into ‘the sound itself’ became more and more central. This then led me to create installation pieces, even though I started out as a painter. But already for my graduation work, though, I did installations that make sound.”

Several of Paul Devens’ recent works, such as Panels or Probe, investigate and re-sound specific locations and the corresponding architecture by means of the sound of the space itself, often using audio feedback as sound material. Both also involve meticulously produced and well thought out electro-mechanical devices, that impress by their effectiveness and (apparent) simplicity. Panels, as you may remember, was pretty large, while Probe is relatively small. But both witness Paul’s keen eye for materials and his love for construction, in the broadest sense of the term.

paul

“For ‘Probe’ I asked Michael to send me an architectural drawing of the space where the installation was to be,” Paul explained. “I then used that drawing to make a 3D model of the space in Google SketchUp. As I could not just hop over to Brooklyn to have a look, this virtual model enabled me to get a first feeling for the circumstances as I would find them there. I then had a physical scale model made of the space. The real space has a length of about 20 meters. The model is about 50 centimeters long. It was made in stainless steel. With a waterjet the doors, windows and pillars were cut out, and then bead blasting was used to get a specific surface texture. More than a maquette, I wanted it to emanate a certain functionality. To have it look like a little machine.”

It is also a sculpture.

“Yes, it is a sculpture, of course. A replica of the space. And for the installation at the gallery, I placed this replica of the space inside the space itself. It is partially filled with water, and a probe is moving through the model, like someone erring through the real space. Six spots on the bottom of the model correspond to six fixed loudspeakers in the gallery, and whenever the probe comes near one of the spots, you will hear the sound coming from the corresponding spot in the gallery. You can see how it works in this short video.”

“As you see, the model thus acts as a potentiometer which uses the conductivity properties of the water, for the panning of the sound, its division among the six loudspeakers.”

You once told me that, when it comes to sound and sound art, you see yourself as ‘a purist’: when you create a work for a specific space, you try to reveal the sonic properties, the sound of the space, and its relation to the specific architecture, the materials and the geometry. In doing so, you avoid adding or imposing whatever accessory or incidental sound events in the process.

“Yes. Even though it regularly happens that I am tempted to also consider the esthetics in and by itself as a point of departure, I have until now always managed to restrain myself in that respect. Like in Probe, or in Panels, I work with little else but the Larsen effects of a space, with audio feedback. It is of course true, that the feedback of a microphone placed at a certain distance from a loudspeaker in a room can be rather unpleasant to listen to. So I could make it more agreeable to the ear by adding harmonies, by using techniques like, for example, pitch shifting. But I do not do that, because in the end this is little more than decoration, without conceptual connection to the piece itself. It is possible that this makes some of my works somewhat hermetic. Maybe. But it does assure that everything fits, which I find essential. Because that is how I think I can achieve the broadest possible artistic range. For me this is a necessity, as I want avoid at all cost that a work in the end is little more than a first encounter, a mere gimmick. It should be coherent, in all of its aspects. It is this internal coherence that emanates a strong interrelation and interaction with all that what one sees and what one hears. I want to be very strict about this.”

The work becomes, let’s say: ‘pretty’, because you avoid trying to make it seem prettier than it really is… Does this approach make your work ‘abstract’? Or is it, on the contrary, very ‘concrete’?

“What would you say is ‘abstract’ about it? I often hear people use that term in relation to my work: ‘abstract’. But I don’t know …”

‘Abstract’ maybe in the sense that you keep things bare. The materials are bare, the sounds are bare. You strip it all down to the essentials, and do not add something like a ‘narrative layer’, a ‘story. You see what you see, you hear what you hear…?

“But is that ‘abstract’? Is it ‘concrete’? As far as I see it, there always is a ‘story’. A very clear story, even. An evident one. No, I feel pretty uncomfortable with all of these terms: ‘abstract’, ‘concrete’, ‘figurative’… A work results from a certain conditionality, that is based on a given reality. This conditionality represents the reality, ‘the way that things are’, in a situation that transforms, with and by the work. This enables one to see, to experience, that piece of reality (a given space) in a different manner. In order to achieve this I probably do apply strategies that can be associated with terms like ‘abstract’, ‘concrete’ or whatever; strategies that I put to work depending on their functionality, in certain circumstances, at certain times. In other situations I may find a certain narrative envelope, or social-cultural facts that are related to the place, of utmost importance for the production of a work.”

The installation in Kortrijk also will be different in this respect. Your point of departure is a different type of space.

“Yes. In City Chase it is not so much the given room for the exhibition (which in Kortrijk is the topfloor of the Budatoren) that I take as my point of departure, but the space of the city itself. The idea is to create a ‘city sound scape’ by applying – to use a fashionable term – a mapping technique: I will be mapping the city. The sound material consists in field recordings that I will make in the streets of different parts of Kortrijk at the end of April. I will go to different areas, with different sonic characteristics, and put together a collection of recordings that will constitute a cross-section of the many different sounds that can be heard there: sounds in residential areas, in the more industrial areas, shopping areas, and so on. But I will not record these snippets of the city sound scape by going to different places, then placing myself here and there, put down my digital recorder and then statically record. What I aim for are recordings with a strong dynamic component, in the sense that there is no ‘focus’ to the recording. There is no static, single ‘point of hear’, no fixed spot for the listener. For this, I will record the city while riding on a bicycle.”

Riding the bicycle through the city will by itself already be an impressive & dynamic sonic event. There might be a lot of wind, also… I guess you’ll have to limit your speed…?

“Well, I just got my ‘dead kitten’… I will use a double protection: inside the ‘dead kitten’ there is another windshield. I hope that will do to minimize the noise of the wind in the microphone. I’ll have to see for that. I just received it, so I did not yet try it out. With these recordings I then will compile a library of fragments of the sound of the city.”

paul

“This library of dynamic, unfocused, city sound recordings is the material for a four channel composition. There will be four voices. And each of the voices is linked to the installation, via a computer. The installation itself consists in a long, self-supporting wall, that is now being built, and that I will position within the space in the Budatoren. Along the wall, at a little distance, there is a range of benches that visitors can sit upon and listen. Onto the wall four metal rails have been mounted horizontally. Each of these serves as the track for a little motorized wagon – a little gondola, a ‘gondolette’ – on which a small loudspeaker has been mounted. These gondolettes can move along the full length of the wall, in both directions. Each loudspeaker corresponds to one of the four sound tracks; each is one of the voices. The installation is variable in size. It is conceived in a modular way, put together from a number of identical parts. So I can adapt it to the size of the available space. In Kortrijk I will use the full length; that is about 10 meters. In other spaces it will be possible to use different lenghts, down to 2 meters. And then of course whatever there is in between.”

paul

For next installments of City Chase, like in Bergen or in Maastricht, will you replace the Kortrijk library with another library of sounds, recorded in the corresponding city? Will the sound part be specific to each of the different cities?

“No, I want City Chase to evolve with each subsequent version. It will grow as it goes from town to town. So in each of the next cities that will host the installation, I will not replace the sounds, but add new recordings to the library of sounds.”

And how are the movements of the gondolettes determined? What will make the little speakers move the way they move?

“The gondolettes will move when there is sound on their track; they move as soon as they have a voice. When there is no sound, they don’t move.”

paul

How do they move? What will make them move in the one, rather than in the other direction?

“That will be a matter of choreography. I am going to compose the movements: when a little wagon will move, in which direction it will go, whether it will go fast or go slow… This I will program, so eventually the choreography will be a fixed thing. I really want to determine this, and not leave it up to chance, or some algorithm or other. Because, as I see it, not all movements will be equally good. An algorithm would reduce the choreography to a set of mere mathematical relations. That I do not want. I want to stay in control.”

“In the very end, in all of this, it is the human size that matters. The human measure. Are things bigger than you are? Or are they smaller? And these questions in turn, of course, eventually also evoke a relation with ‘power’.
Who is it, that is in charge?”

The Festival van Vlaanderen Kortrijk 2011 takes place in Kortrijk, Belgium, between May 5th and 22nd. Sound City (Klinkende Stad) is the title of the Resonance exhibition (with sound installations by Pierre Berthet, Esther Venrooy, Paul Devens and Maia Urstad) that is part of the Festival. The exhibition’s opening (in the Budatoren, Korte Kapucijnenstraat), will take place on Saturday May 7th.

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